The public, the private and what every leader has in common

13 Dec 2013

I have written a number of articles for Backbench about the politics of personality, but I recently read an article by Dominic Lawson which once again got the old juices flowing over this complex topic which has intrigued and fascinated me over the years. He wrote about the BBC’s apparent comparison of Nelson Mandela with Christ. Although there is no doubt that Mandela is, quite rightly, one of the more revered statesmen of the last century, Lawson argues ‘political history should also warn us never to confuse the public and private man’ (or woman). This is true not just of Mandela, but of all ‘great’ leaders, whether good, bad or somewhere in between.


I am not reflecting on legacies and actions here, I simply wish to focus on the one thing every political leader has in common, no matter what their place in history: they are human, all with private lives and private personas. It is just as incorrect to compare Mandela to Christ as it would be to compare dictators such as Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi to a two-dimensional Bond villain.

Lawson makes the interesting point that some politicians can be perfectly warm in public but cold in private (citing Mandela), while others can be considerate to those around them but have a reputation in office as politically and emotionally divisive. Still, the public and private aren’t entirely separate and, no matter how hard they might try, there will be a blurring of the two somewhere. Margaret Thatcher was known among her (often loyal) staff to have a caring and thoughtful side, although, as we know, her family suffered for her political career. Churchill may have dictated to his secretary while in the bath, among a plethora of other foibles reported by his staff over the years, but this hardly lessened him as a great strategic thinker. He has been accused of not being particularly agreeable in private, even rude and insulting, but without that mix of personal abruptness and political opportunism, the war may have turned out very differently.

Hitler is one of the more extreme examples of the curious juxtaposition between the personal and the public figure. No other leader in modern history can be credited, for want of a better word, with creating such a false image of themself; amongst the lies and the propaganda the clear message was he had no private life, he was ‘wedded’ to Germany and her people. From the many accounts of those who knew him privately, this was- to an extent at least- false. It was certainly true that he had difficulty forming normal human relationships, but there were enough witnesses to suggest he enjoyed company, especially of women, and was warm and charming to those he favoured. The God-like myth Joseph Goebbels pedalled about his Führer meant Eva Braun officially didn't exist, hidden away at the Berghof (Hitler's mountain retreat). A keen photographer and film-maker, Braun's private videos of Hitler show a more relaxed side; videos which were to be kept secret from ordinary Germans for fear of shattering the carefully crafted illusion. 

The loyalty of his closest staff was not all to do with indoctrination, but simply because he was a ‘nice boss’. In her account of her time working for Hitler (subsequently turned into the Oscar-winning film ‘Downfall’), his last secretary Traudl Jung accuses herself of being ‘naive and unthinking’ because he had been an ‘agreeable employer, paternal and friendly’, even between the drug-crazed monologues of his final days in the bunker.  Another loyal staff member, his valet Heinz Linge, wrote chillingly in his memoirs 'it was easier for [Hitler] to sign a death warrant for an officer on the front than to swallow bad news about the health of his dog'. He also refused to watch his close companions skiing (including Eva Braun) because he couldn’t bear the thought they might hurt themselves. Whether Jung was right to feel the guilt to which she confesses was her own personal judgement, but what she and Linge did was give us a glimpse into a complex persona that raises interesting questions about the nature of all our leaders, good and bad, who have made their mark on history.

'Spin-doctoring' has always been around, even before the Nazi propaganda machine of the 1930s, but it was the first time a political leader had reached a vast audience both in print and, perhaps even more importantly, visually through the art of film. Hitler himself was the epitome of style over substance, perfect for the new, mass-market weapon of choice for history’s most notorious propagandist, Joseph Goebbels. The cult figure of Hitler was marketed to a German audience to perfection - for a while, at least. As the war raged on, Goebbels lost his touch and Germans were left facing the stark reality that Hitler was no saviour after all; his image was, of course, one of the biggest lies in history. Whether we like it or not, the pre-war years of the Third Reich were a startling master-class of how to play on human emotions and fears for electoral success. Today, marketing of our politicians, creating them into something that perhaps they are not in private to achieve political aims is an accepted (if not acceptable) part of life.

Returning to the general theme, does it matter if our political leaders are one thing in their public duty and another in private lives, particularly if they are a force for good? Lawson argues that Mandela certainly did not wish to be seen as a saint, and made no secret of what he saw as his personal failings. Personal morality is, essentially, for the individual, but nevertheless it should play a part in the private as well as political actions of our leaders. That being said, Mandela's incredible achievements appear in no noticeable way to have been impinged by his private life. The legacy is more important than the man or woman; their actions in office of greater significance than the family they left or sidelined, or the tea and cake they gave to their staff before sanctioning a massacre. But we mustn’t make the mistake of creating saints or demons if we are to create a more rounded view of past and present. For all the academic studies, all the books that have been and will be written about an individual’s place in history, the Jungs and the Linges are just as important.

By Emma Gray


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